This week we are covering highway accidents and how to look at the issue of negligence. On Monday we covered mistakes in passing on a two-lane undivided roadway; then Tuesday we wrote about heading the wrong-way on a four-lane divided interstate highway and today we will discuss crossing the center line that kills the one main witness who could explain why their vehicle may have come across the center line.

We have a young man age 36 of Chelsea driving a Chrysler Sebring heading east on Highway 30 in Tama County, Iowa. Coming from the opposite direction is a semi-truck driven by Robert Nielson of Cedar Rapids. Nielson sees the opposing vehicle coming at him and attempts to avoid the collision by applying his emergency brakes, but with no apparent success. The narrative description given by the Iowa State Patrol is as follows.

UNIT #1 WAS EAST BOUND HWY 30 AND CROSSED THE CENTERLINE INTO THE WEST BOUND LANE. UNIT #2 WAS WESTBOUND ON HWY 30 AND DRIVER #2 APPLIED EMERGENCY BRAKING AND STEERED RIGHT TO TRY TO AVOID STRIKING UNIT #1. UNIT #1 STRUCK UNIT #2 IN THE LEFT REAR DRIVE AXLE. UNIT #2 LEFT THE ROADWAY TO THE RIGHT AND CAME TO REST IN THE NORTH DITCH . UNIT #1 CAME TO REST FACING NORTH ON THE SOUTH SHOULDER OF HWY 30.

That description doesn’t really tell us much about what caused the first vehicle’s driver to come across the center line; we are left to speculate at this point about the whys. As lawyers we aren’t allowed to speculate. We can extrapolate from the known facts but that’s a different skill and the lawyer walks a fine line. Nevertheless it’s something we all must know how to do. In this case the driver of vehicle number who is not identified out of respect, he died, can’t be questioned. And that is why the officer’s report describes events one and two, along with the most harmful event but draws no firm conclusions. In addition this driver died and therefore no citation would be issued. Citations are violations of the rules-of-the-road and give us a very good idea of what fault or negligence we can attribute to the driver who receives the citation. In this case event 1 is crossed centerline and the second event is vehicle in traffic, meaning striking another vehicle that is in traffic. In this case the most harmful event is number two.

Is that the end of our analysis? No it isn’t. As lawyers we must wonder about the driver’s sobriety or whether he may have fallen asleep. To the sobriety issue I note the officer order a urine test; which indicates the officer is also wondering about the driver’s sobriety. My guess is they will not do a urine test but a blood screen for alcohol and drugs. The cause can come back leading us to conclude other causes. The driver may have a heart attack or an epileptic seizure in which case he’s probably not, but not in all cases, to be found at fault. The heart attack angle can be explored by the results of an autopsy when they examine the heart.

What about whether or not the driver fell asleep? How would you prove that might be the case? This accident occurred at 6:49 AM on March 16, 2009.  The time of the accident is well after the bars close. The date of the accident may or may not tell us something. St. Patrick’s Day is March 17, 2009 so he’s probably not yet celebrating with an all night binge. Was he gambling all night the Indian Reservation gambling house? Maybe but we’d have to examine his direction of travel and whether the casino is behind him or in front of him. Our analysis could go either way depending on what the evidence shows about whether he gave a ride home to some other gambler. So how can we discover facts that might lead us to know more so we aren’t speculating?

Well, first we would talk with the spouse, co-workers and friends who would know about the driver’s activities over these past 48 hours. If he just got off of work after working double shifts or more, then this could lead us to believe something about him falling asleep at the wheel. That of course assumes his blood work and autopsy findings are clean and clear.

We would also look inside the car to see if there are receipts or other writings telling us more about his activities. I’ve found printed email messages in the glove box indicating other potential witnesses and social plans that lead us to where the decedent was just prior to the collision. As a lawyer you have to put in leather work to discovery the truth about the case. It’s not an easy job and after 28 years and at age 54 I’m still curious about the truth of the matter for which my clients hire me to discover. Actors refer to it as creative energy.

So today’s case doesn’t allow us to conclude anything about whether the driver whose vehicle crossed the center line was at fault. We have to wait and conduct a more thorough investigation. Until then you’re just guessing.

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